Utah prairie dogs have fended off an existential threat and will not be going to the Supreme Court after all. The furry, cute and highly social animals were at the center of a lawsuit pitting private property rights against endangered species protection.
In January, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to reconsider the case which has been moving through the courts since 2013. That means Utah prairie dogs retain federal protection as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act, and retroactive to August 2017 they are managed by federal government rules, not Utah rules.
Utah prairie dogs (Cynomys parvidens) live only in southwest Utah, about 68% of them on private property. They like to dig holes, to the great annoyance of human land owners. The species has been driven to near extinction by the privatization of their habitat since ranchers, who consider them a nuisance, poisoned, shot and trapped them in great numbers. The few remaining large colonies were exterminated by poison in 1971.
When the Endangered Species Act was signed in 1973, Utah prairie dogs were officially listed as an “endangered” with only about 3,300 animals remaining from historical populations of up to 95,000. In 1979, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources petitioned to have them de-listed, and in 1984 they were reclassified as “threatened” with a special rule to allow “taking” (which means killing) up to 5,000 animals annually in order to mitigate antagonism from local ranchers. In 1991 the permitted take was increased to 6,000, but just 12 years later the adult population crashed to about 4,000 adult animals after an outbreak of plague. The special rule could theoretically have wiped out the entire species.
Nonetheless, private-property hard-liners kept trying to completely eliminate protections for prairie dogs. In 2013, a property-rights group with the snarky-sounding name People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners (PETPO) challenged endangered species listing for the prairie dogs claiming that under the Commerce Clause, the federal government has no constitutional authority to regulate a species that lives only in one state and has no commercial value.
Here’s why the Utah prairie dog case was important beyond just protecting the animals themselves: Nationwide, political conservatives were hoping to use the Utah prairie dog as a wedge to undermine the entire Endangered Species Act.
This property-rights view was supported in amicus briefs by the State of Utah and by various libertarian groups including the CATO Institute. (Amicus curiae briefs, Latin for “friend of the court,” are filed by parties who are not named in the lawsuit but who want to offer information that could affect the judge’s decision.) These briefs essentially said that the State of Utah should be legally allowed to cause the extinction of an in-state endangered species if they chose to do so.
The 2016 Republican Party Platform contains no specific mention of prairie dogs, but it blames the Endangered Species Act for halting construction projects and specifically attacks endangered species designation for gray wolves, lesser prairie chickens and sage grouse.
In 2013, the State and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) sold 800 acres of land in Garfield County to the Nature Conservancy as a safe harbor for prairie dogs even though anti-federal activists opposed the sale for fear that it would increase federal government influence. The Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office makes the disingenuous claim that species recovery for Utah prairie dogs has been underestimated because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not count animals on private land (remember, though, that the State of Utah wants legal authority to exterminate private-land and state-land prairie dogs).
At last count in 2016, Utah prairie dogs numbered around 11,435 animals but only 2,579 lived on public or safe-haven land.
The Trump Administration is threatening to loosen endangered species protections and Donald Trump, Jr. has participated in prairie dog shoots, an inhumane entertainment where animals are shot purely for fun. Utah author Terry Tempest Williams wrote about Utah prairie dogs in her book Finding Beauty in a Broken World (2008).